Friday, August 26, 2016
Book 63: The stories of people who didn't make the team.
It seems to me that books are more often sad than movies and television shows, and short stories are more often sad than book-length stories.
Of course, there are happy endings, and then there are happy endings. I also once noted that all Xmas movies seem to have the same basic plot: A person has a life. That life gets a little worse. On Xmas, the person is restored to his original status: It's a Xmas miracle! Everyone's happy.
So what really constitutes a sad ending and what really constitutes a happy one? Audiences hated the original ending to Fatal Attraction, which had Glenn Close winning. Instead, the 'happy' ending had Anne Archer shooting a woman in their home, a little girl's pet dead, a family if not destroyed at least extremely disrupted. Not to mention which: there is no indication that Glenn Close's character was crazy before meeting Michael Douglas; it's entirely possible that had she never met him, she would not be dead at the end of the movie. Happy indeed!
Those were the kinds of things I ended up thinking about the stories in Tenth Of December, which are beautiful and amazing stories but which were so gut-wrenching that at least three times in the book I had to simply stop and go do something else. These are not stories for the faint-hearted, emotionally speaking, and even when they are happy they are sad -- and when they are sad, they are devastatingly so.
The collection begins with Victory Lap, in which a girl getting ready for a dance recital is abducted at knife point just as the boy next door arrives home. The story switches perspective between the three characters, with each switch getting darker and sadder, moving the story far above the melodrama it might have been.
Sticks is a great example of how flash fiction should work: the story, about a man who has a sort of crucifix of sticks in his yard on which he hangs various holiday decorations, is supershort. While it could easily be longer, there is a synchronicity between the brevity of the story and the way the sticks play a role in the man's life, and its shortness is itself almost like a stick, in that the story just comes in and wallops you and then is gone.
Puppy was where the collection started to move into the kind of emotional minefield that made me occasionally turn the book off: the story is a simple one about a mother taking her kids to buy a new puppy, and the first half of the story is told from the purchasing mom's perspective, with the second half from the much-poorer selling mom's point of view. The odd similarities between the two create a sort of there but for the grace of God moment in the story, which ends in a way that will choke you up.
One thing about Saunders' stories is that the characters in them, while somewhat distinct, have a tendency to feel cut from the same mold if you listen to (or read) all the stories in a short time. That's not a bad thing, because they start to feel representative of a certain kind of person, a certain way of existing. Saunders' characters have a tendency to let their train of thoughts move them into a dark place before seemingly remembering that in our society, we don't do that, and pulling themselves back. A person will think, for example, that he's not happy with his work, and how he hasn't achieved very much, and maybe his dreams as a kid were sort of dashed, before suddenly saying no but I know work is great it's an honorable way to make a living.
It's an odd tic Saunders resorts to over and over that starts to resonate, and makes you think about how we have these things we just... do. I once noted that whenever someone says Of all the people in the world who would you most want to have dinner with, or something similar, we should just automatically fill in "besides your mom" because we all feel this obligation to say something like Well um my mom and Jesus... or some other space filler. We're trained to almost say these things by rote: we're not supposed to tell people they're not good people, and not supposed to complain about some things. How many times have you heard someone -- even me -- say We live in a great country but... as if we can't say something's wrong with the US without first hedging our bets? Saunders' characters do that so easily, so facilely, that it lays open the lie within it: like a multiple choice test, often the first answer is the right one.
Escape From Spiderhead moves into science-fictiony territory: the story of a man imprisoned for murder, with other murderers, on whom various drugs are tested is eerie not just in its presentation but in how likely it actually seems it could be. As with many such dystopian setups, the story takes a dramatic and startling turn for the weirder and worse before finishing with what conceivably might have been the only happy ending possible -- and it's one of those but is it happy endings.
Al Roosten is a glimpse into the muddled mind of a man running a sort of antique store on the night of a local businessman charity auction where the people are supposed to bid for a lunch with the businessman. Al is like Walter Mitty, only more desperate and sad. Where Mitty daydreamed of being a pilot (I think? That was a long time ago) Al's dreams are simply that he would get invited to dinner with the rich guy in town, and that at that dinner, his nephews who are living with him after his sister's divorce wouldn't break anything. It's like Walter Mitty woke up in the midst of the Great Recession. This is what men can dream of these days, it seems to say: we can't aspire to fly, to have adventures, to break out of our humdrum existence. We can only hope that the rich will share some of the glory with us as their occasional guests.
That theme carries into The Semplica Girl Diaries, another scifi story of sorts in which the main character is a middle-class guy living in a rich city; at the outset of the story he and his family go to the birthday party of his daughter's classmate, and are walked around the rich folks' house, noting the three stocked trout streams and fancy treehouse that's said to be as big as the narrator's house. The story is narrated by the man writing in his diary, frequently making reference to future people reading it and what they might make of it.
The "Semplica Girls" are girls from foreign countries, brought to America in exchange for money paid to their families; the girls agree to come here and spend the first few years or so here as lawn decorations, with a 'microline' strung through their brains so they can hang and sway in the wind on people's lawns, smiling and waving and chatting, if the owners want, and they play a central role in the story, which doesn't so much end as just... trail away.
The last few stories in the collection are like that; they have endings that don't feel final, in that you cannot picture the words the end in any concrete way set after the last period -- and yet, in a very inchoate way each of the last few stories does end. It just takes a while to set in that yes, that was the ending. The stories are almost unsettling that way; at first your mind thinks wait it's not over but then you realize that there's really only one way things could go, that even if you don't know exactly how they got there, they're going to end up in that spot where you can tell they're headed.
That, too, was strange. I was thinking one day how when you watch a movie like, say, Captain America, you know the good guys will win. The suspense really is in how they get there: how will he win, what twists will the story take. Saunders' stories are the opposite of that. In these stories, you know that at the end of the line there is no gold medal, no glory. These are the stories of the people who didn't make the team, and even though they're headed in a different direction, they will end up there as certainly as Captain America will shake hands with the president and wave to the crowd.
That's where it's hard to read these stories, sometimes, hard but necessary, in the way that I find it hard but necessary to read every story about every special needs kid with any troubles anywhere: it's necessary because by knowing what I might be in for, I know what to look out for and can try to avoid it. But it's hard because if nobody else could avoid it, how can we? Reading these stories it's difficult to shake the feeling that these really are the stories of the rest of us: these are the stories about all the people who usually don't get stories written about them. And the reason for that is that these stories are not uplifting, not "the feel-good movie of the year." Nobody shows up on the doorstep to take these kids off to a magical castle. There is no last-minute rescue helicopter barely making it to the ledge to get people off the mountain. In these stories, nobody gets out alive.
Why do we write sad stories? I wrote 365 stories in a single year, one a day, and a great great many of them were sad. I said at the time that I was writing out my sadness. Life -- as Saunders' characters seem to recite by rote -- requires that we put a happy face on so much. We have to smile and grin and bear it and say that no it's no big deal or that's okay or you're right. We have to tell ourselves that we love our jobs even though there are about a million things we'd rather be doing, and let's be honest: that's true. I think I have a pretty good job: my own boss, helping people, I make okay money, I have a lot of flexibility, it's different nearly every day. Despite all that, if I won the lottery right now I'd probably never work a day in my life again, because if you could, instead of waking up Monday and getting showered and heading to an office to spend the day taking phone calls from lawyers (lawyers are the worst kind of people and they barely qualify as people in most instances), if you could skip that and sleep until you felt like waking, then walk outside and see the Caribbean sky, all blue, with the water only slightly disturbed by a bit of a breeze, if you could spend the morning swimming and then eat lunch and in the afternoon read for a while or go for a walk or boating, and then have a nice dinner, if you could have every day be trips to the zoo and going to the Statue of Liberty and making giant Hot Wheel tracks in your yard, instead of cleaning out the gutters and putting more paper in the copier, who WOULDN'T do that?
So we tell ourselves life isn't so bad, that we have good jobs and lots of vacation time and that, but we know that life isn't so good, that we haven't somehow found a way to make life better for ourselves and everyone around us, but we can't spend every second of every day saying life isn't so good. So we patch on a smile and make the best of it, but there's that sadness in the background that comes out, sometimes. If you're a writer, maybe it comes out in your stories.
Home and My Chivalric Fiasco are both interesting but feel somewhat incomplete; if this collection has a weak link it is these two. In Home a man has come back home on the night his mother is getting evicted, just as he is on leave or perhaps discharged from the military. The story follows his wanderings over a few days, but the unexplained mysteries -- what happened, this weird store he runs into, his wife's new husband -- make the story feel underdeveloped. My Chivalric Fiasco is similar, but a bit worse: a man gets a promotion after witnessing his boss essentially raping a coworker, and then blows it. The story feels rushed and sketchy, like it wasn't really ready to be read. Take these stories out of the book and the rest would be stronger. They're not terrible, just not done.
Tenth Of December, the final story, is a knockout. It starts with a kid heading out to walk around in the woods playing pretend, then stumbles into a man attempting to kill himself by hypothermia, and the way the story jumps back and forth between the two perspectives makes it all the more astonishing; like with Victory Lap the change in points of view makes the story rise above the plot, and drives it into your mind. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat waiting for it to happen.
Overall, Saunders is John Cheever writing for the 21st century, which is a high compliment from me, as Cheever's stories are amazing. Saunders captures moments in time, and elements of mood, that feel essential. His stories are only superficially about plot and characters. They are, on a deeper level, stories about what it means to be alive, when being alive might be the only good thing about your life. They are stories about now, and while you may not always want to read them, they are the kind of stories we should not turn away from.